By Charles Boehm
Slammers FC had worked so hard to reach the ECNL Under-16 Flight A championship final on Saturday. The Newport Beach, Calif.-based team rolled to the best record in their division over a 10-month regular season before winning three games in three days this week at the Waukegan SportsPark.
But once the whistle blew to start the title game against Dallas Sting, their title hopes seemed to slip away in a matter of moments as they found themselves in a 2-0 hole before the match was half an hour old, with Sting dispatching an early penalty kick, then doubling their advantage a few minutes later.
Trailing an experienced opponent known for their relentless physicality, playing their fourth high-intensity game in as many days under hot, draining conditions, it would’ve been all too easy for Slammers to fold at that point. Regrouping the troops at the half, head coach Walid Khoury urged them to think bigger – and dig deeper.
“You’ve got 40 minutes to win this,” he told his team. “Believe in yourselves.”
And that’s exactly that they did.
Benefitting from a few tactical tweaks and Sting’s own flagging energy levels, Slammers hauled their way back from the brink. Mackenzie Cerda scored one goal, then another, tying the match and giving her defensive teammates the boost they needed to weather a late flurry of pressure from their Texas rivals and carry the game into overtime.
“I really felt when we were down 2-0, if we could get to halftime at 2-0, we could get back in the game,” Khoury said to The Soccer Wire afterwards. “A 2-0 lead is the most dangerous lead in soccer, we all know that.
“This team has got character…I give all the credit to my players.”
Slammers attacker Kayla Mills took control of the match down the stretch, covering lots of ground in the attacking end and dribbling at the Sting back line every chance she got.
“She’s a very, very special soccer player,” said Khoury of Mills, who committed to USC last year, “but most importantly, what a special leader and human being, and that’s what people don’t know.”
One of darting runs down the left channel ended in a low cross that ricocheted around Dallas’ penalty box before falling to Cerda for the tying goal. With time ticking down on the second overtime period, Mills capped a nearly identical run with a low cross to the back post that found substitute Claire Oates wide open for a simple finish to win the game.
“We went from a 4-4-2 and brought Kayla Mills into the attacking center mid position, brought fresh legs on the outside,” explained Khoury. “Once we got the [first] goal we went back to our regular formation, we got the tying goal and then in overtime we brought fresh legs in and that’s the girl [Oates] that made the run and scored the winner.
“We went to a 4-3-3, then went back to a 4-4-2, then went 3-4-3 and then a 4-3-3 to finish it.”
Sting coach Tatu Pecorari was hoarse, and bitterly disappointed, after the match, but nonetheless paid tribute to both teams.
“I’m very proud of the team,” he said with a voice hoarse from shouting instructions and encouragement for nearly two hours. “Last year we finished in, what was it, ninth place, we didn’t even get to play in a winning bracket. This year did our part.
“I think the girls did well – unfortunately we ran out of gas. We went up 2-0 and we basically couldn’t run, couldn’t hold. We need to learn how to finish games. We had it in our hands and we didn’t do a good job. That’s how it goes – congrats to [Slammers], they worked hard, after they got two goals they never quit, and that’s the sign of champions. You have to congratulate them.”
Sting were left in tears after falling just short of the season’s biggest prize, while Slammers lifted the trophy that may well push their club into the top echelon of ECNL’s overall club rankings.
“This team is amazing. We fight for each other all the time,” said Mills. “We know how to come back, because we love each other and we know that we each deserve it. We wanted it so bad.
“We’ve always been a second-half team. We knew we could come back, because that’s just who we are.”